We gave it an A-
Let’s get reality out of the way. Juno is about — and the quirky first name of — an independent-minded high school virgin (Ellen Page) who freely chooses to have sex with her pal and fellow outsider, Bleeker (Michael Cera). Contraception is not used; the girl becomes pregnant. Juno is fortunate to have a supportive and loving father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney), a true-blue best friend (Olivia Thirlby), access to a safe and legal abortion, and the right to choose whether to continue or terminate her pregnancy, with Bleeker’s unwavering support. She chooses to continue, and to give the baby up for adoption. Juno would have been a very different movie had the young woman named for the queen of Roman gods chosen termination and brought her admirable young female clarity to that less gentle, more divisive decision — maybe truer, certainly not so funny.
But director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody really don’t give a hoot what you think about the right to life/right to choose/right to make jokes about teen sex. Their movie, a blithe charmer balanced somewhere between a life-should-be-so-neat fairy tale and a life’s-a-real-bitch tragicomedy, leaves political debate at the ticket counter and focuses solely on what it’s like for Juno MacGuff to be Juno MacGuff. And damned if the girl, as played by Hard Candy‘s radiantly no-nonsense Page, isn’t who every whip-smart young moviegoing woman cheered by My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Daria, and the graphic novels of Daniel Clowes ought to aspire to be. Minus the unprotected sex.
In truth, Juno begins at such a pitch of hyperverbal smart-mouthing, not only by the title character but also by everyone around her, that it takes about a half hour for the movie’s long-term plans to make tolerable sense and for the laugh-baiting banter to calm down. Some of this is Reitman’s doing, beginning with the bright, sunshiny (and Little Miss Sunshine-y) colors and tempo of his antiheroine’s Sunny D-swigging march to a drugstore to purchase yet another pregnancy test. But more of the responsibility belongs to young Ms. Cody, clearly a writer of unique sass herself, who proudly proffers her stint as a Minneapolis phone-sex operator/insurance adjuster as a PR hook. Sometimes she just can’t help adding an extra serving of cute. ”This is one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet,” the chatty drugstore guy (The Office‘s Rainn Wilson) chirps when Juno announces the pink positive sign on the test stick. ”Silencio, old man,” she tells him. (I can just about see the words on the script page, but not out of a stressed girl’s mouth.) Soon, Juno considers her choices. ”I’m just calling to procure a hasty abortion,” she says on the phone to one clinic. The handset she uses is a novelty shape, but that’s not enough. ”I’m on my hamburger phone,” she explains, for the chance to say ”hamburger phone.”
The student who describes herself as a ”cautionary whale” is a hip pip all right. And Superbad‘s Cera, dressed for maximum post-ironic giggles in flappy little phys ed shorts and head-and-wrist sweatbands, makes Bleeker the kind of pre-cool treasure that a discerning high school girl ought to keep her eye on. But the movie’s biggest surprise, and reward, turns out to be the maturity and appreciation with which Cody and Reitman handle the grown-ups in the mix — the adults for whom Juno’s choice carries as much, or even more, importance. I don’t think Jennifer Garner has ever been lovelier or more affecting than in her turn as Vanessa, one-half of the childless married couple looking to adopt whose advertisement in the local PennySaver Juno answers. Vanessa ardently longs for motherhood. She’s a tucked-in, successful corporate type bursting to fulfill her true calling by loving a child, and her husband Mark (Jason Bateman) appears, for a while, to be on the same page. Then again, Mark is also a very familiar breed of grown-up boy-man still wistful for his old days back with his comic books. He’s wistful for the very youth Juno MacGuff still has.
Truth: The old-school feminist in me wishes Juno spent more time, even a tart sentence or two, acknowledging that the options taken for granted by this one attractive, articulate teen are in fact hard-won, precious rights, and need to be guarded by a new-generation army of Junos and Bleekers, spreading the word by text message as well as by hamburger phone. Separate but equal truth: This movie is so delightful and good-hearted a portrait of the kind of new-generation army I’d like to hang with that I accept the admonition ”Silencio, old woman.” A-